O'Connell at Von Braun 2018
Kevin O’Connell, director of the Office of Space Commerce, said a proposed rule for reforming commercial remote sensing should be released "very, very soon." Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The Commerce Department plans to soon release a new rule designed to streamline licensing of commercial remote sensing systems with what one official called a “fundamentally different” approach for licensing.

During a presentation at the National Space Council meeting in Washington Oct. 23, Karen Dunn Kelley, the acting deputy secretary of commerce, said that the department submitted to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) a day earlier a draft rule on revising commercial remote sensing licensing processes.

That proposal “will revolutionize the way we regulate the use of cameras in space,” she said. “This will replace outdated regulation that are slowing down industry achievements.” That includes, she said, creating categories that “exempt certain pre-approved activities” from a lengthy license application and review process so that regulators can devote their time to “truly warranted national security” concerns with such systems.

That issue received public attention earlier this year when SpaceX was unable to webcast video from a camera on a Falcon 9 rocket during flight after finding out that, because the Earth was visible in those images, it needed a license from NOAA, which handles commercial remote sensing regulatory issues.

Kelley alluded to that issue in her remarks. “SpaceX’s GoPro camera, that is used for marketing and shows customers that the payloads have successfully been separated, should not be treated in the same way as the highly technical camera that can see your shoelaces from space,” she said.

The OMB review is a final step before the proposed rule is released for public comment. That should happen “very, very soon,” said Kevin O’Connell, director of the Office of Space Commerce, in a speech Oct. 23 at a University of Alabama at Huntsville workshop on space commercialization.

O’Connell said this proposed rule represents major, rather than incremental, change in remote sensing reform, reflecting rapid growth in remote sensing. “It has a fundamentally different approach to how we think about companies that come forward for remote sensing licenses,” he said. “We tried to take a clean sheet of paper, acknowledge that the circumstances were completely different and go from there.”

NOAA has already taken steps to speed up licensing process. Kelley noted that the average review time for a commercial remote sensing license application is now 62 days, down from 140 days two years ago, even as the number of licenses has grown by nearly a factor of 10 in the last eight years, from 26 to 227.

“Time is money in business,” O’Connell said. Uncertainty and delays are “deadly to a business, and we’re trying to make sure that that does not happen.”

Commercial remote sensing is just one of several areas of regulatory reform identified in Space Policy Directive 2, signed by President Trump in May. Other issues in progress include launch and reentry licensing updates, a review of export control regulations and a report on radiofrequency spectrum.

O’Connell said that the spectrum report, which involves the Commerce Department and several other federal agencies, is being wrapped up. “You should see an update on that very soon,” he said.

Related to the spectrum report is an Oct. 25 policy directive from the White House on a “sustainable spectrum strategy” for the country. That strategy is largely focused on development of 5G wireless systems, but the policy also includes as a goal to “improve the global competitiveness of United States terrestrial and space-related industries” and includes the National Space Council among those organizations represented on a new Spectrum Strategy Task Force.

Another element of SPD-2 calls for a reorganization of the Department of Commerce’s various space-related responsibilities into a single office to create a “one-stop shop” for most commercial space regulatory issues. Shortly after the release of SPD-2, the Commerce Department announced its intent to create a Space Policy Advancing Commercial Enterprise (SPACE) Administration that would combine the Office of Space Commerce with NOAA’s Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs office and include liaisons from several other Commerce Department offices.

Kelley said at the Space Council meeting that the Commerce Department has submitted a legislative proposal to Congress that would establish that office, now called the Bureau of Space Commerce, and led by an assistant secretary of commerce. “The agency will report directly to the secretary, coordinating all the department’s space efforts,” she said.

That bureau would also, under the proposed legislation, have “mission authorization” authority to license commercial space activities that are not currently handled elsewhere. That has been a topic of considerable debate in Congress, with a House bill proposing to give that authority to the Commerce Department while a separate Senate bill would allow the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation to carry out such activities.

“We really wanted to recognize that this is about commerce,” O’Connell said of the mission authorization proposal, which he suggested would offer a light touch approach. “That doesn’t mean reckless. It doesn’t mean permissionless. It means that we’re sensible and fast and efficient in allowing companies to take a shot at some of these newer concepts that are out there.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...